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Michael Debije
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Eindhoven
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Origins- How We Became Human is designed by Phil Eklund from Sierra Madre Games, and is jointly produced with Sphinx Spieleverlag, and was published in 2007. It is playable by 2 to 5 players and takes several hours to complete, usually between 3 and 5.

What You Get

The sturdy box is quite large, larger than is strictly necessary. The cover is attractive, but it is the rear side that I find more compelling. On it, in the top right corner is an amusing montage of the face of the designer morphed to appear as one of the five species appearing in the game. This was very clever and quite a good idea.

Inside the box there is a two-part, hard-backed map of the world. It is quite colorful and pretty clear, although some have not been as fond of the icons used in the Infrastructure advancement tracks located on the left-hand side. Along the map bottom are the three tables used during the game. You also get five color player mats with a wealth of information on them including places for markers, cards, and brain maps. There is one sequence of play sheet (I recommend photocopies), 5 sets of 24 colored wooden cubes, a die, 3 climate cards, 5 brain map cards, and 102 era cards divided into three decks. The cards are very colorful with a good layout, but slightly thin, so care must be taken with them.

In all, the presentation is a great step up from the regular Sierra Madre Games offering, in that there is no necessity of self-assembly. It is professionally produced and I find it attractive. I must admit, however, the way the rulebook was put together with two language sets makes it a bit more difficult to read, but this is a relatively minor quibble.

What You Do

The game is played through a series of three eras, as one progresses from the Age of Instinct through the Bicameral Age and into the Age of Faith. The game ends when the first player leaves the third era and enters the Age of Reason. A forthcoming expansion will extend play through the entire Age of Reason, but this is still in playtesting. The winner is the player who has scored the most points, the manner of scoring points being different for each of the five possible races in the game.

The game is set up by distributing one of the brain maps, representing one of the five possible races, to each player. This brain map will determine the player’s starting position and end game victory conditions. For example, Archaic Homo Sapiens starts in Africa and scored points for Information and Administration cards held. Each player places one marker on their starting position, and fills the Innovation and Population sections of his player mat. The Innovation track determines how many cards you can hold, and the number of Innovation actions you can undertake, and the Population track determines how many population actions you may do, as well as your chance of going into Chaos. All players start with 1 Innovation and 1 Population action.

The game is played in seven phases per player turn, each player completing all the phases before moving to the next player. The first phase is the Invention phase. In this phase you perform a number of actions equal to your Innovation number, and there are seven possible actions. However, not every action will be available to the player: it depends on which areas of his Brain have been developed. For example, to undertake the Lexicalization action, the player must have the Language section of his brain functioning. It is one of the main goals of era one to develop the mind to a point one has all the actions available. Some of the actions possible include Novel Behavior, allowing the drawing of cards, Imitator, which allows the ‘stealing’ of other player’s advances, and so on. When players move to the second era (by making all regions of his brain functional) and beyond (how this is done is described later), a different set of Innovation actions become available, and this era shift has dramatic consequences on further play: for example, one of the key changes is the loss of the ability of metropolis formation through simple domestication of native plants and animals.

In phase two, any catastrophes drawn in phase one are resolved. Catastrophes appear on some cards called ‘Public’: the other type of card is called ‘Idea’. Catastrophes include devastating volcanic eruptions, the onset or ending of Ice Ages, or epidemics. Generally, they aren’t too pleasant.

In phase three, the cards are played. Any Public cards drawn in phase one must be auctioned at this point. Owning Public cards can give a player in-game advantages (Administration cards to avoid Chaos, Culture cards to steal opponent’s best and brightest) but also can score points for the player at game end, depending on their individual goals. Bids are made using Elders. Each player can achieve Elders in various ways during the game, mainly by card play, but the number of Elders is limited by the number of metropolises you control on the map. Players may combine bids on Public cards, and the highest bid gets the card and any resulting effects. After all Public cards are played; the player may play as many Idea cards as desired. Idea cards are split into two halves. The play of the left side often requires the attainment of some minimum level of Infrastructure, such as level 2 in maritime, or a population footprint of 2. If the requirement is met, then the advantages of the rest of the left hand side are applied, which may be the ‘reset’ of Elders, making them again available for bidding, the promotion of Elders, which opens up your Innovation, advancement on Infrastructure tracks, or the like. If the requirements for left hand play are not met, the right hand side takes effect, often resulting in ‘fecundity decrease’, or moving of Innovation units to Population spaces. Used cards are placed face up in individual discard piles. This is important, as a particularly important Invention phase action is drawing the top card from an opponent’s discard pile. Normally, one may only draw a card from an era no more than equal to your own, but in some instances it is possible to steal ideas from an advanced era.

Phase four brings the dreaded stability roll. The number required to roll on a six-sided die is determined by your population level, and is modified by your level of Administration achieved. If this roll is failed, the player goes into Chaos, resulting in the loss of half of on-map units, suppression of topmost Public cards, the entering of a Dark Age, and the premature end of one’s turn. However, Chaos is not all bad: in fact, it is required to enter Chaos in order to advance to the next Era. The timing of when you enter Chaos is one of the most important choices you make in the game.

Phase five brings on the Population phase. You have a number of actions equal to your population number, plus extra actions if you choose to expend Elders. This is the primary way to get units on the map and move them. In this phase one may move a cube from the Population track onto the board at the location of another of your cubes. However, there may not be more than one cube on any hex point on the map, and the number of cubes surrounding one hex is limited by your advancement on the Footprint infrastructure chart. Thus, it is likely you have to move it. Cubes may be moved 5 spaces. There are several limitations for movement: it is not possible over glacial areas, and only with specific infrastructure advances may one cross deserts, jungle or straights and seas. Several regions will shift from desert to habitable, from dry to flooded depending on the world weather conditions (Ice ages and the like). During this phase it is also possible to, among other things, steal Elders of lesser cultured people, make trades (in era three) or forming metropolises (also in era three). It also is when you may attack your opponents: battles are decided by determining who has advanced further in the Metallurgy infrastructure.

Phase six is very short: the map is checked to see if there are any regions that are overpopulated by the active player. If so, the ‘siege’ is resolved. The number of units for the combatants is compared with the player with more advanced metallurgy adding one point. High score wins, perhaps resulting in the takeover of a foreign metropolis site.

The last phase has the active player check to see if he has overpopulated any regions, in which case the extras are removed from the board.

Players may advance to era two after clearing all spaces in their brain: era three may be entered anytime the player chooses to advance from the era two Golden ages. The game ends when one player advances to the era four Dark Age from the era three Golden age. Victory points are totaled for all the cultures based on their individual goals and adding in Population and Innovation numbers, and, naturally, high total wins.

I realize I have glossed over quite a bit, and have ignored such specific and optional rules as entering a state of slavery to another culture and the like, but believe this summary gives at least an impression of game play.

What I Think

Origins is not a complicated game, but is very complex in the interplay of the various aspects of the game. There is a lot going on, a lot you need to do, and a lot of forethought to end up advancing at a reasonable pace: go too recklessly, and you will find yourself hopelessly foundering, advance too slowly and you’ll never catch up. It is not a game to master at your first sitting, nor the second of the third. There is a real art to timing your play that is not at all apparent when you start play.

I’ve read several comments to the effect that people have played the game one time and either sold or traded it away, declaring it ‘totally random’ and their fate was totally decided by the draw of a card or the roll of a die. There are die rolls and card draws in the game, it is true. Many of them have a definite impact on the game, and some come down to luck. However, the whole point of the game is manipulating the variables as best one may to make the luck of someone else work for you, and to minimize the effects of setbacks on yourself. Many players who forge ahead, playing the game as a race are doomed to end up wallowing in a frustrating position in an advanced era while his ‘trailers’ build up a strong position. Those who treat it as a straight wargame will also find themselves falling behind, but sometimes confrontation will be necessary.

There is imbalance in starting position, in card draws, in brain maps: nature is not fair. However, playtesting has shown that each species is capable of winning, but the challenges may be greater for some starting positions than others. The game presents a truly unique experience in the theme, and is extensively documented: each card has a separate description, and the author has provided some extensive footnotes and discussions (creationists will certainly have something to complain about). The presentation is quite attractive (even striking) and the gameplay deep and involved. For those willing to go the extra effort to delve into the game will find a meaty effort to confront. For the standard Euro gamer, this game may never reveal itself to you, which is a pity, but that’s how it goes.

Mr. Eklund has a history of making theme-dripping games with a vast scope (American Megafauna, Lords of the Sierra Madre, Rocket Flight) and has assembled a small but rabid group of fans. This game will not disappoint the initiated, and at the same time has been made more accessible to attract in some of the more hardcore Euro gamers, folks who enjoy Die Macher or Martin Wallace games and are willing to sit at the table a little longer. This was easily my favorite release of ’07, and I believe will reward those willing to make the journey.
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Alan Pengelly
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Have not played or seen this game but it does sound interesting, and as it also appears from your description to be somewhat similar in nature to Civilisation, (which is a game I enjoy very much), is something which would make me keen to investigate this game further.
And then you mention dice.
Do not really like to use of dice in what are presumably meant to be strategic games, and as I would hope that any game lasting more than several hours would be a strategic game, and be based on my decisions, (i.e. if I play badly its because I have made a bad decision or misunderstood my opponents strategy), and not simply random events caused by rolling a dice, (e.g. Risk, etc), this kind of dampens my enthusiasm to investigate this game further.

How much can you offset the randomness of the dice roll by the decisions or actions you make during the game?


(Edited for spelling).


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Michael Debije
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Origins is a game with 1000 year turns. I'm sorry, but with this kind of scale, random things can happen. You do not have the luxury, as in may Euro games, of knowing in advance what the weather is going to be like 5000 years from now. You cannot guarantee that the kangaroos you want to domesticate are going to cooperate by playing a set of three yellow cards. Sometimes society will break down into Chaos because you have stretched the limit of their tolerence and you can't just supress it by moving a balck pawn there.

You can mitigate the bad events through foresight, and react to them, and it is a standard objective of the game to minimize the effects of these events, but they can happen wether you want them to or not. This is not a determanistic game, and it should not be, either. If the idea of a rolling a die scares you, or if the feeling that potential dangers could await you every draw of a card feels to be too much to handle, this might not be the game for you. It is an epic game where you have to both plan for the future, but react to unforseen events, and often can take you out of the 'safe' realm of many Euros (like Puerto Rico, Shadows of the Emporer or Agricola), but if you are excited by the opportunity to raise a proto-human creature out of the depths of Africa into the piolet's seat of a Boeing 747 in only a few hours, then Origins may be worth a look for you.
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John Douglass
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Thanks for the review!!! I agree with everything you said and enjoyed your synopsis. I am sure I will refer back to it.

I just played this game with Phil over the weekend and I had a ton of fun. Although I lost (and he keeps reminding me of that ), the game is so rich that winning, while important, was not my sole goal. I like developing and envisioning my society over time. Phil got face paint early on (culture), so he was able to steal my eldersangry. But, in reality, if people in my culture had never seen tatoos... of course some of my guys (and more likely girls) would want to go over to his civilization. That's why I started a religion, to get em back.

Having Phil there to explain why he chose particular mechanics or technologies and whose books or papers he read for reference was fascinating. I had no idea how much thought and energy was put into this game.

As far as game play, you are definately at the mercy of the dice and card draws at the start (and if those go your way early, run with it-- on the other hand, it took Phil four tries before he finally domesticated the donkey, which means he rolled three 1's in a row soblue), but luck becomes less and less of a factor as the game goes along. You will eventually develop more and more technology and abilities that provide you with flexiblity to either prevent or offset bad things, which is fun in its own right. Starting with more luck and building towards more strategy sounds the like right idea for a game about that simualtes over a hundred thousand year time span.

We never engaged each other from a military standpoint, so I can't speak about that (after a series of catastrophes, the climate got ugly quick and we ended staying isolated most of the game--although being isolated didn't mean there wasn't any player interaction, remember the tatoos). Curious to see how that works in the game.

Anyway, really enjoyed the review and the game, looking forward to playing it again. Learning the rules takes some time and patience, and gameplay can be frustrating when not going your way. But in the end, for what this game is trying to do, it does a great job!
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Phil Eklund
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About Dice in Origins: I will give my best objective answer. Dice rolling is both significant and controversial in the game Origins. The first playtest copy of the game, being loosely based on my game American Megafauna, was diceless. Dice were introduced for three (and only three) functions:
1) Global Climate Change (Ice Ages, deserts, etc.)
2) Stability Roll (Chaos)
3) Domestications (Animals, crops, resources)
Therefore, dice are not used for combat, movement, movement order, advancements, sieges, enslavement, revolutions, etc.

Addressing these 3 in order: Climate change greatly alters the landscape, and can put certain cultures into isolation, sometimes a serious disadvantage (notably for Cro-Magnon and the Hobbit). I had hoped this would act as a forcing function, motivating a player to make a navy to see the world. For example, if the Indonesians become isolated by jungles and malaria, then they would be modivated to become Polynesians and spread over Australia and the Pacific (a historical situation). Other players may be motivated to go to the New World.

As for stability, this depends upon a risk assessment by individual players. Many players are happy to keep their civilizations within a safe size, with no chance of the inhabitants losing their identity and wandering away during chaos. This is easily accomplished. Expansionist players may take small risks, if they see enough advantage in growing to occupy favorable territory. Since occasionally chaos is an advantage (changing eras requires the turmoil of chaos to initiate), one will see empires hyper-expanding like so many Alexanders, trying for a failed chaos roll.

These two implementations of dice do not greatly alter the strategic nature of the game. Not so the last usage of the dice, for domestications (including resource extractions), which is by design a game bottleneck. Domestications are essential to become herdsmen or agriculturalists, to advance to golden ages, to advance in energy infrastructure, and to end the game. A bad domestication roll can cause animals to go extinct, or can delay development for thousands of years. One playtester spent 6000 years trying to domesticate the banana, we still pantomine peeling a banana whenever we encounter him at the conventions! (However, he recovered from this setback). Results like these (inspired by Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel) are all too historical. To alleviate bad player luck, I am introducing (into the Era IV expansion deck, to be published this fall) three new optional population actions: Livestock Raids, Foodstock Raids, and Mining. The exact nature of these actions is still in playtest, but essentially the first two allows a player to gain in energy by raiding neighbors, and the last improves resource extractions of established cities, and especially enhances gaining energy levels 2 (through biofuels such as olive oil), and higher (through oil and uranium).
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Jake
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mi_de wrote:
...if you are excited by the opportunity to raise a proto-human creature out of the depths of Africa into the piolet's seat of a Boeing 747 in only a few hours, then Origins may be worth a look for you.

An Age of Reason-era 747?
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Michael Debije
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Well, I have the Era iV expansion, but you're right in that it sounds a bit off for Era III!
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Michael @mgouker
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I really love this game! Great job to all involved and thank you Phil Eklund for a truly phenomenol game.
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Alan Pengelly
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Having read the replies, (plus some of the other reviews for this game), perhaps I was too hasty in my comments re the use of dice.

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Anders Gabrielsson
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The dice rolls are important, sometimes very important, but like has been said upthread, they introduce risk management rather than pure luck. The Hobbits can be put into a very awkward position by an early change to jungle climate, but they can mitigate that a lot by keeping their innovation number at two and going for domestication of bananas and water buffalo and anything that helps increase their sailing technology.

(On a side note, it seems that it's often more advantageous to be enslaved by another player than to be isolated in a difficult position, so keeping your population alive at any cost isn't always the best strategy.)

Likewise, the stability roll is a big random factor early on, but at that point in the game the effects usually aren't that bad. You don't get to make any population actions, but often there is nothing terribly important to do with them. Your public cards will be flipped over, but you rarely have more than one, and they're not hard to unflip. You may lose a population token or two, but normally it doesn't take more than one turn to get them back into play. The biggest disadvantage is that the eliminated population tokens can reduce your innovation number, but then trying to keep that high is a constant struggle through most of the game.

Later on you will normally have been able to get at least one administration card, which gives you much bigger choice in when to take the risk of chaos and when to stay safe.
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